JULY 6 — The last time Indonesia caught a political fever was in the year following the 1998 Reformasi, when the country’s three-decade-long president Suharto had just stepped down following mounting opposition and unrest.
Then people followed political news passionately — even “live” broadcasts of parliamentary sessions drew a large audience. Among the typically apolitical middle class, there was a sense of hope and a shared feeling that their country was going through a crucial change.
Sixteen years later a similar sentiment has taken over, but this time the country couldn’t be more different in spirit.
A closely fought two-horse race — the first in Indonesia that does not involve an incumbent — has carved a deep crack that divides supporters of the two presidential candidates, Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo.
To both supporters, the stakes are high, but even more so for those who fear the return of an authoritarian leader in Indonesia, which they see in Prabowo.
In its Friday editorial, The Jakarta Post broke its 31-year tradition of non-partisanship in elections by publicly endorsing Jokowi, calling it a “moral choice” needed when “the stakes are so high.” This was the first time such a move is made by any of the independent media in Indonesia.
So acrimonious has the rivalry been that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono warned last week of a possible turmoil after Election Day.
This statement was rather ironic considering the president actually has the power to curb the level of animosity in this election, if he had acted more firmly against smear campaigns in their early days.
Jokowi, an early frontrunner, has been the main target of these campaigns, with a variety of accusations levelled against him, from being a Christian and of Chinese descent, a puppet leader to a communist.
One of these sources of propaganda was a tabloid distributed at Islamic boarding schools across Java that was found to have been published by a special staffer to Yudhoyono’s.
Setiyardi, who was finally named a suspect on Friday, is also a commissioner for a state-owned company and a close friend of the president’s special aide Andi Arief.
Working with journalist Darmawan Sepriyossa from a media outfit linked to the Prabowo camp, Setiyardi had insisted he did nothing wrong.
He claims to have merely exercised press freedom by being critical against Jokowi. He also said that the tens of thousands of dollars used to publish and distribute the tabloid came from his own pocket.
A similar tabloid with a different name has been circulated more recently in Kalimantan, and the police have been criticised for failing to dig deeper into who the real financier of these tabloids is.
Yudhoyono’s neutrality has been in question as many of his Democratic Party officials have given their support to the Prabowo-Hatta Rajasa ticket. They include the president’s own son Edhie Baskoro, who happens to be Hatta’s son-in-law.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect about this election season is the willingness of many Indonesians to ignore the human rights issue, although documents released by retired generals in the Jokowi camp verify that Prabowo was dismissed for carrying out the abduction of pro-democracy activists in late 1990s.
This week, some information has also emerged — and was confirmed by prominent and credible figures — about Hatta’s involvement with an allegedly powerful “oil mafia” godfather in Indonesia. It remains to be seen, however, whether this will put a bigger dent into the Prabowo-Hatta ticket than the human rights issue.
Prabowo’s success in narrowing the gap against Jokowi owes to the distinctively militaristic strategy of his campaign, employing what appears to be “slash-and-burn” politics.
Often associated with Karl Rove, who is US former president George W. Bush’s political strategist, this strategy involves demonising the opponent, whipping up mass emotion, creating little room for critical thought and projecting a leader who knows best.
His camp was also quick in taking in figures and groups that had not been politically accommodated by the Jokowi camp.
Before partnering with Prabowo, Hatta had previously offered himself to be Jokowi’s running mate. The Islamic parties in Prabowo’s coalition had also initially expressed interest in joining Jokowi’s coalition of political parties.
On the Jokowi side the political machinery may not have provided optimal support for the ticket in the regions.
Last week I travelled through the southwestern part of Central Java in areas known to be the strongholds of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which nominated Jokowi. Prabowo is gaining ground in this region because his grandfather hailed from there, and also because of the religious propaganda against Jokowi.
My conversations with some of the party cadres in the region revealed that many of them were suffering from campaign fatigue, especially those who lost in the legislative election in April.
“I would really like to help, but I need to focus on making money right now to pay for the loans I took to run,” said one legislative candidate who lost in the election, requesting anonymity.
The high cost of a direct election may be a factor in Prabowo’s swift rise and Jokowi’s plateauing electability. With a reported US$147 million (RM468.3 million) in assets and cash, Prabowo’s wealth dwarfs that of Jokowi’s and the two running mates’ combined.
Jokowi’s public account has received over 100 billion rupiah in corporate and private contributions in a short period of time, but it pales in comparison to the financial muscles provided by Prabowo’s billionaire brother Hashim, and some of Indonesia’s richest tycoons who are betting on him.
The “David vs Goliath” feel of this battle may have a positive effect on Jokowi, however, with thousands of volunteers, including dozens of highly respected intellectuals, performers and artists expressing public support for him in the days before the election.
And then there’s the question of Prabowo’s commitment to democracy. In a discussion last week, he called direct presidential election un-Indonesian and vowed to return to the “consultative” approach, a plan that analysts have called “regressive.”
Over the past few days, the netizens, including some of the most popular celebrities in Indonesia have flooded Twitter with expressions of support for Jokowi, including one hashtagged #akhirnyapilihjokowi (finally I choose Jokowi).
The latest survey by Roy Morgan shows Jokowi is still ahead with a four percentage point lead over his opponent, making this potentially Indonesia’s most tightly contested race.
But whoever wins the race, this election may be remembered as the one that determines the future of Indonesia’s democracy.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.